While yesterday started out as a day full of stress and worrying about what could go wrong, it turned out to be an exciting day that provided increased independence, expanded horizons and a new feeling of liberation. It was the first day that I flew on an airplane in my power wheelchair, as I traveled from Washington, DC to West Palm Beach, FL for a friend’s wedding. This was an extremely exciting accomplishment, but it was also nerve wracking and required a lot of advanced logistical planning.
The last time I flew was almost 8 years ago, but I took that trip in my small manual chair. While there are some similarities in the process of flying in a manual chair versus a power chair, there are also aspects of it that are like talking apples to oranges. To be honest, the last time I flew, my manual chair was severely damaged and required the airline to purchase me a new chair. Since then I have not been comfortable flying, but finally decided that it was time to try again and do so with my power chair. The uncertainty of not knowing how someone would be handling my power chair and worrying that damage could occur in flight always led me to look for alternative travel arrangements. I'm glad to say that everything went smoothly on both ends of the trip and no damage occurred to the chair.
For everyone who is wondering "how does Taylor fly", let me share some insight with you. The process starts weeks/months in advance of the actual flight by sharing as many details as possible with the airline about my physical condition and limited mobility, dimensions and weight specifics of my power chair, as well as any other needs I will have at the airport. Once I get through security and to the flight gate, the airline allows me to pre-board about 30 minutes before the flight is scheduled to take off. As I drive my power chair to the airplane’s door, I am transferred out of my own personal wheelchair into an isle chair that the airline provides, which is a very narrow wheelchair that allows me to get through the door of the aircraft and down the aisle to my seat. I am then transferred into a regular airplane seat, but ensuring that I am sitting on my specialized gel cushion to prevent any skin irritation during the flight. Due to the height of my wheelchair, I needed to remove my backrest and all of the side handles to minimize the height and ensure that the chair could fit in the door to the underbelly of the plane where everyone's luggage is stored. This is where I place all of my trust into the handler that will be putting my chair into the plane and I was lucky enough to speak personally with this individual at DCA airport. This definitely increased my comfort level, but I never have that same luxury at the arrival airport. I took as many extra precautions as I possibly could, to include turning off my power switches and placing bubblewrap around my joystick and anything that is especially fragile.
As everyone who frequently travels knows, getting through the airport and the security lines is not always easy. I am still required to go through security screening, although I just receive a pat-down and chemical swab testing on my wheelchair given that I am unable to go through the metal detector. I would be remiss if I did not express my sincere gratitude to my fellow U.S. Department of Homeland Security colleagues within the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) who ensured that I was efficiently brought through the screening process with the highest comfort level. A few years ago, TSA created the TSA Cares program to work with passengers with disabilities or special circumstances that might need a little extra assistance at the airport. I want to thank them for the attention they gave me, but also for their steadfast service they provide to all individuals flying across this country each and every day. I would also ask everyone reading this post to take five seconds to thank at least one TSA officer they interact with the next time they pass through an airport. These men and women are critical to the safety and security of our country and often get overlooked with gratitude.
Thank you to everyone who encouraged me to take this leap of faith and keep those positive thoughts coming for future trips. While there will always be a little anxiety about how safely my chair travels on future trips, I do have more confidence in the airlines than I did a few days ago and friends are already asking me what my next trip is going to be..... Who has a bachelor party in Las Vegas that I can go to?